Commons Movements and Progressive Governments as Dual Power

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* Article: Commons' Movements & “Progressive” Governments as Dual Power : The Potential for Social Transformation in Europe. Antonios Broumas. Capital & Class, 2016


Contextual Citation


"The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the conquest or control of the state, but a struggle between the state and the non-state (humanity)." (Agamben 1993 : 85)

2. Antonios Broumas:

In this sense, there can be no partner state to the commons and social counter – power in the ashes of the disintegrating post-war welfare state, no matter how noble the intentions of its theorists are (Bauwens & Kostakis 2014, P2P Foundation 2015).


"In the neoliberal era, social counter - power emerges as the main resurgent force to contend the capital - state complex, whether in the form of labour struggles or direct democratic movements or in the form of struggles for the preservation / difussion of the commons. Political forces within these societies in motion do not play the role of revolutionary vanguards, instead they protect and facilitate the process of the social revolution by political or military means. At the negative pole of the duality, the failure to sustain social reproduction under extreme conditions of inequality and corruption gives rise either to “failed states” or to progressive governments, which start building their hegemony in complex interrelation to grassroots movements. Dual power was the form that the great revolutions of the 20th century took. It may again prove to be the most effective revolutionary praxis of our times."


Antonios Broumas:

" no matter how much decentralised markets are, capital is ultimately structured as a system (De Angelis 2007), capable of concentrating its social power through its sophisticated processes of circulation and accumulation (Harvey 2012 : 122). For this reason a revolutionary praxis preserving horizontality at its heart makes sense only if social counter – power is capable of effectively being circulated and accumulated through circuits insurgent to capital. Instead of the exchange value of commodities, the motivation of private profit and the coercive laws of competition, these circuits are already being constituted to circulate and accumulate values, such as use values, solidarity, collaboration, equality and freedom, and desperately need to be articulated in a coherent alternative system. It is through this transitory system and its alternative social relations that societies will be gradually able to gain conditions of relative material and social autonomy from the capital – state complex, before revolution gives birth to a new freer world beyond capital. Having in mind the tenets described above, it is evident that political revolution makes no sense in a world where dominant powers do not dwell in winter palaces (Day 2005 : 133). We cannot expect to be successful by first seizing power and then expecting to engage in social transformations by utilizing the state. However, it is also evident that societal reproduction has been statified to such an extent that the immediate destruction of state infrastructure by violent means will not destroy statified relations at the social base and will most probably lead to the reproduction of the state after communities of struggle subside (Kioupkiolis 2015 : 170). We should also keep in mind that the networked form of capitalist domination is structured around nodes of coordination, which not only crystallize in the state but also in solid market institutions. The structural power of financial institutions at the global level is after all the major disciplinary mechanism of societies in our era. But if political revolution and the anarchist fetishization of immediate social revolution are nowadays redundant, what is there left apart from the endless reproduction of networks to disperse power and their subsequent crashing by dominant powers? The responses cannot and should not be sought through theoretical constructions. They should be sought at the tangible alternatives pioneered by societies around the world, which struggle for survival against capital."


" social counter power is not purely the product of capitalist contradictions but is also generated from an “outside” to the capitalist world. This “outside” is the commons. Elementally, commons refers to shared resources where each stakeholder has an equal interest (Ostrom 1990). These resources can either be material, social or intellectual. Sharing also implies the existence of a human community and certain community - defined rules, according to which these resources are shared. Therefore, commons do not just refer to shared wealth and institutions. As Max Haiven accurately describes, commoning is above all a process of developing shared resources, or building community, or evolving and transforming the world together (Haiven 2014 : 79). Hence, commons presuppose communal social relations, which are essentially opposed to those of capitalist society. And whether material, social or intellectual, commons are the main source of value in any type of society. In egalitarian and communitarian societies commons would be preserved, cultivated and expanded through sharing, collaboration and democratic decision-making, so as to maximise their social value. In our societies though, in which communal relations of sharing and collaboration are penalised by institutions that solely promote the motivation of private profit, commons are constantly being devalued, overused or destroyed by capital in a twofold manner."

Contemporary dual power processes within failed states

"Contemporary dual power processes within “failed states” may be found to take place, among others, in Chiapas, Mexico, and in Rojava, Syria. In Chiapas, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation [EZLN] has since 1994 declared a primarily defensive war against the Mexican state on the part of the oppressed and dispossessed citizens of the country. On January 1, 2003, and after having exhausted all means of dialogue with the government, the EZLN chose to abandon the politics of demand and concentrate on building institutions of participatory self governance and economic management in oppositional autonomy vis a vis the Mexican state. With its Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, dated June 28, 2005, the EZLN sided with non - electoral politics and a new political culture of horizontal autonomy, in a continuous struggle to build from bottom up “a world where many worlds fit”. Along these lines the indigenous zapatista movement has constructed self – governing communities in its territories, which are confederated in five autonomous municipalities, called the “Caracoles”. Each Caracol is governed by a Council of Good Government, which rotates every two weeks so as for every citizen within its jurisdiction to serve in self – governance. The Councils of Good Government take decisions on local issues of food, health, education and taxation, allocate resources, build social infrastructure and also enact communal laws. In addition, production and economic management in the zapatista communities is organised through social cooperatives and communal property. Whilst the EZLN with its political clout and military power acts as the ultimate guardian of the communities' well – being, it recognises the right of the people to possess arms and defend against the Mexican state or even EZLN and is under its own acts of constitution explicitly forbidden to intervene to communal matters within the Caracoles. The Mexican state, having never officially recognized the political and economic institutions of the zapatista movement, constantly mobilizes its state and paramilitary armed forces to reportedly wage low intensity warfare against the communities. Yet, the zapatista territories, although the most prominent, are not the only regions of Mexico, where communities of struggle have constructed non – state institutions for their collective survival.

Almost ten years after the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca was crushed by the State, the city is again in turmoil because of massive social mobilisations with the most recent incident being the mutiny of part of the local police force on labour demands and its open clash with the federal police for days. Furthermore, long before but, especially, after the kidnapping and assassination of 43 students from the local college of Ayotzinapa, while they were protesting against the mayor of Iguala, self - organised citizen militias in several parts of the region of Guerrero have been formed to defend their communities from the state and the drug cartels. All in all, Mexico may be one of the most illustrative cases of neoliberal creative destruction, where dualities of power emerge in the ruins of state disintegration at the same time with drug mafia enclaves and territories of capitalist domination / exploitation unleashed.

Rojava is a region in northern Syria, which declared its autonomy from the Syrian state on the basis of direct democracy, gender equity, and sustainability amid the civil war in the country

Early after the Arab revolutions and already from the beginning of the civil war, the kurdish radical left Democratic Union Party (PYD) along with other parties and citizens formed a grassroots political coalition in the region, called the Movement for a Democratic Society, with an immediate program to establish direct democratic committees and communes in neighborhoods, villages, counties and towns. From its inception this program was determined by the strong influence of democratic confederalist ideas as an alternative to the centralization of the nation – state (Ocalan 2011). The democratic confederalist project proved extremely successful. Large parts of the Rojava population have organised themselves in communes, which take and execute decisions on local matters in weekly direct democratic assemblies. Other groups, such as groups on feminine, economic, environmental, education and health and care issues, have also been formed. Communes and groups are confederated in municipal committees and the regional “House of the Peoples”, which takes decisions for more general issues. Private property rights and entrepreneurship are accountable to the democratic will of the communes, whereas in many cases local resources and services for the provision of basic needs have been collectivised. The Movement for a Democratic Society has also established democratic and egalitarian citizen militias, the YPG / YPJ, which bear the burden of defending Rojava against ISIL. The political, economic and cultural counter – institutions of Rojava exist alongside the centralized governmental structure of the Kurdish Supreme Committee, which was established on 12 July 2012 following an agreement between the radical left PYD and the right – wing Kurdish National Council (KNC). Due to the fact that the peoples of Rojava are engaged in a war against ISIL, the sustainability of social counter power in the region vis a vis both ISIL and the emerging Syrian Kurdistan state is safeguarded by the YPG / YPJ citizen militias, which thus determine co-relations between the dualities in power at the moment. Yet, even in these dire conditions of day after day struggle for its survival the democratic confederalist project in Rojava is a source for hope for all the peoples of Syria and the wider middle East. Evidence for that is the fact that Arab and Christian refugees from other parts of Syria pass the borders of the region to find shelter, freedom and tolerance under the auspices of its democratic and egalitarian institutions.

If the social revolutions in Chiapas, Mexico, and in Rojava, Syria depict dual power formations and dialectics within failed states because of neoliberal creative destruction or war, the project of constructing a communal state in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is a much more complicated process, which, even with its immense differences and particularities, could still give a far – fetched glimpse of what social revolution would look like within the straightjacket of nation – states of the West and, in particular, Europe."

Dual Power: a history of the concept

Antonios Broumas:

"Our main argument in this piece is that dual power may prove to be the most effective revolutionary praxis of our times. It is the revolutionary praxis where both the marxist and anarchist traditions of radical thought can possibly merge, though under specific conditions regarding the complex dialectics between the dualities of this contradictory form of power. And it was the shape that the great revolutions of the 20th century took, when the domination of the capital – state complex was rapidly subsuming societies in its rise. But first, let us shortly delve into the history of the concept. The revolutionary praxis of dual power goes back to Pier – Joseph Proudhon, who in 1851 described the process as such : “[b]eneath the governmental machinery, in the shadow of political institutions, out of the sight of statesmen and priests, society is producing its own organism, slowly and silently; and constructing a new order, the expression of its vitality and autonomy” (Proudhon 1969/1851 : 243). According to Proudhon's vision, the 1848 direct democratic neighbourhood associations of Paris could form a viable duality of power with the national assembly of France under a certain division of labour for the execution of political decision-making. In this socio-historical context, Proudhon sketched already back at 1848-1851 the revolutionary praxis of dual power, which could lead to a progressive reduction in the power of the State and the parallel development of the power of the people from below (Guerin 1970 : 152-3). His ideas were almost brought into reality in 1871, when the Paris Commune called upon the French people to form communes and confederate into a dual power in opposition to the newly created Third Republic, before being crushed by the French state and its allied states (Bookchin 2015 : 117). But it was not until 1917 that Lenin coined the very term during the February soviet revolution of the same year. In his very own description, “[a]longside the Provisional Government, the government of bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing—the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (Lenin 1917b). In his classic article at Pravda Lenin even described the characteristics of social counter – power as (i) being a constituent force, (ii) replacing every form of social power separated from the people by its own counter-institutions, which are necessarily embedded in social life, and (iii) replacing representation by delegates in order to avoid the rise of a privileged class. According to Trotsky, this two – power regime arises only in a revolutionary epoch and is the direct product of irreconcilable class conflicts that at that historical moment come to their climax (Trotsky 2008/1930 : 149). Hence, as Lenin believed, dual power is a condition that cannot last long. The revolutionary party had to seize the state and push forward with the political revolution (Lenin 1917c). In the case of the Russian soviet revolution, this perspective about the dialectics between the dualities in power resulted in the gradual overtaking of the independent power of the Soviets by the intended force of the political revolution, the communist party, the latter inevitably becoming separated from society and statified. The 1936 Spanish revolution represents an opposing, albeit equally destructive, dialectic for revolutionary transformation. In this case, as in Russia, the revolted masses of the workers and peasants in Catalonia built their economic and political counter-institutions of popular power from the bottom up in direct defiance of the bourgeois state. This new world was being born in spermatic form, waiting for the revolutionary act of force to shatter the old. Yet, the seizure of power by a genuinely social revolution at the base was misunderstood as political revolution from above, i.e. as a process to reproduce the state – form and its separated from society bureaucratic structures. Regrettably, Spanish anarchists learned the bad way that hierarchy and domination in societies may never be eliminated by tactics of withdrawal from power. After the Catalonian plenums withdrew from power, the Spanish state rapidly regained ground and prevailed.

In our times, dualities of power take place between the dominant power of the capital – state complex and social counter power, the latter being a form of non-state power that is fully socialized, i.e. not separated from but rather dispersed throughout the social body (Zibechi 2010 : 7). The organisational cell of social counter power is the community of struggle that sets whole societies in motion, its institutional base emerges through the co-ordination and confederation of communities of struggle and its modes of circulation and accumulation are founded in the commons. As such, the social relations under construction within counter – power dynamics are mutually exclusive in relation to the social relations reproduced by the capital – state complex. Social counter power inherently disputes all the vertically imposed monopolies of the state upon politics, culture and violence through the establishment of alternative lives in common, whereas the commons expand through the displacement of commodities and capitalist markets and vice versa. In fact, social counter power is formed by its struggle with the capital – state complex, strengthened by this struggle, indeed, defined by this struggle (Bookchin 2015 : 94). As Ciccariello – Mahier writes, “it is the condensation of popular power from below into a radical pole that stands in antagonistic opposition to the state but functions not as a vehicle to seize the state [...] but instead as a fulcrum to radically transform and deconstruct it” (Ciccariello – Mahier 2013 : 239-40). In this challenge, there can be no peaceful reconciliation, but instead a constant accumulation and conflict of opposing powers, “a negative dialectic with no telos outside its incessant deepening” (Ciccariello Maher 2014). On these grounds, we ought to distance ourselves from the leninist concept of dual power, which sublates the antithesis between these conflicting dualities through the seizure of the state by the political vanguard and the annihilation of the non-state counter - power. Toppling the capital – state complex necessarily goes through the preservation of the non – state and commons' qualities of social counter – power and the deconstruction of state and market powers through decentralisation / socialisation.

In this sense, there can be no partner state to the commons and social counter – power in the ashes of the disintegrating post-war welfare state, no matter how noble the intentions of its theorists are (Bauwens & Kostakis 2014, P2P Foundation 2015). In fact, such a term is a contradiction in itself, a platonian conception that shall always reside in the society of ideas, but will never materialize in social praxis apart from the impact on the grassroots struggles due to the disillusions it nourishes. States will never build what will be their own undoing. In any revolution “it is force that counts, and chiefly the organized force of the masses” (C.L.R. James - The Black Jacobins). The radical social transformations brought by the commons and social counter – power may acquire macro – social momentum only by changing co-relations of power from the bottom up, establishing material bases of social autonomy, multiplying alternative identities of struggle, reclaiming the commonwealth, conquering whole terrains of social life and, finally, prevailing over the capital – state complex by brute force."